Am I right or am I right? The spirit of compassionate communication

What: Jerry Donoghue is the founder and coach at Asheville Compassionate Communication Center on E. Chestnut Street. His training is based on the nonviolent communication model developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s during his work in the civil rights movement to forge ways for people to communicate and interact in a way that emphasizes quality connection instead of determining who is right or wrong.

Principle tenets of the practice are that we resort to manipulative or confrontational behavior and communication when we are not being openly honest about what our needs are and how they are or are not being met. The psychology behind it is sometimes boiled down to a primitive fight or flight response, where we unconsciously feel that our very survival is at stake within less-than-dramatic, modern scenarios.

Xpress spoke with Jerry Donaghue to get a deeper perspective into his work with compassionate communication:

Xpress: What is at the root of people’s difficulty communicating compassionately?

Donoghue: We are conditioned within the right/wrong paradigm to make judgements and analyze others instead of expressing how we feel and what we want/value in any given situation. When judging others, we are often experiencing discomfort of some sort and are less inclined to want to empathetically connect with what the other is feeling or wanting/valuing.

For example, if a friend calls me on the phone and spoke all about her exciting news and had to go before I got a chance to share my news, I could easily make the judgments: ‘she’s inconsiderate,’ or ‘she’s so self-centered, or ‘it’s all about her.’ But instead, I could express to this friend that I feel frustrated and want to be mutually heard. I could also acknowledge that she felt excited by her news and wanted to be heard. Once there is this need-based conection where nobody is wrong, we can think of ways to get both sets of needs met.

How do we get so attached to being ‘right’ and making others ‘wrong’?

I believe the attachment to being ‘right’ comes from having deeper, unacknowledged needs. The needs linked to this urge to be right can be triggered/activated when having a disagreeing or conflictual conversation [where] the intensity of feelings and unwillingness to see other viewpoints could be fueled by needs for acceptance, worth, security, empowerment. … When such linkage happens, we are no longer arguing our points of disagreement with a person on a particular topic, but unwittingly fighting for these needs to be met.

On the deepest level, what do we feel is threatened in the act of giving up being ‘right’?

What is threatened is the fulfillment of the deeper unacknowledged needs that are linked to being right in a particular context. I view the urge to be right as a strategy to fulfill those unacknowledged needs as mentioned above. In simple terms, being right could be linked to avoidance of seeing one’s self as a bad person, or the desire to see one’s self as a good person. So in a conversation, it is imperative to be right because your badness or goodness is at stake.

What if someone feels that they are inherently compassionate? Are there still modes of perception/communication that they are unable to see?

Some people mistake being compassionate with being nice. What they might not see is that not asking for your needs to be met (being nice) is not being compassionate to yourself. Other people might understand compassion as some ideal, perfect spiritual state and then unwittingly go about violently judging themselves/others when not living up to such an ideal. … I believe many of us have a sincere intention and want to be compassionate, but, unfortunately, our conditioned ways of responding reside in the right/wrong paradigm and miss the mark. Compassionate communication is a way to learn to bring our language in alignment with our intentions and show up compassionately in the world — even when there is conflict.

Asheville Compassionate Communication Center offers a free practice group for beginners on the second and fourth Thursday of each month from 5-6 p.m. It also offers regular 8-week class sessions, the next of which starts this Thursday, July 10. More information can be found at


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About Jordan Foltz
Exploring the subtle and esoteric aspects of what drives and inspires people to take action— including religion, spirituality, ethics, and aesthetics.

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